Monday, 23 December 2013

Art Garfunkel "The Animal's Christmas" (1986)

"That holy child that shall be born, ever shall be called, forever he'll be called the son of God!" "The creatures in the field waited in the silence of Gabriel's departing, and in the meadow kneeled, still but for the sound of a frightened faun starting" "On the coldest night of the year, at a pub called 'the elephant's ear', Incredible Phat, the innkeeper's cat, was having a saucer of beer" "It's the warmest place in town on the coldest night of the year" "Not born to the forest are we, not born to the plain, to the grass and the shadowed tree"

Art Garfunkel and Amy Grant "The Animal's Christmas" (1986)

The Annunciation/Creatures Of The Field/Just A Simple Little Tune/The Decree/Incredible Phat/The Friendly Beasts/The Song Of The Camels/Words From An Old Spanish Carol/Carol Of The Birds/The Frog/Herod/Wild Geese

Well here we are again, dear readers, near the end of another year when thoughts turn to mistletoe and wine, even if for the musical among us, it's how to get 'mistletoe and wine' off the bleeding radio. Alas, after five years of yuletide favourites, this is the end of an era. Unless the likes of Neil Young or Paul McCartney surprise us in the future (stranger things have happened after all), we only have one more AAA Christmas album to bring you, dear readers and it's this one: Art Garfunkel's well received but poor-selling album which is quite unlike any other Christmas album you'll ever hear. It was entirely written by Art's friend and regular songwriter Jimmy Webb and is a whole new reading of the nativity play, not from Mary and Joseph or even Jesus' point of view, but re-telling the story of how the animals of the kingdom saw the birth of Christ unfold. Taking in cats, camels, frogs and geese, it's probably safe to say it doesn't feature the animals you're expecting either (what, no little donkey?!) Written as a 'favour' from Webb to his local church in Tuxedo, New York (not all that far away from where Garfunkel grew up), 'The Animal's Christmas' was never intended to be a 'public' album and so is as far removed from all the other 'pop' albums Garfunkel made as you can imagine. Part pure grand opera, part pure 'Captain Beaky' (contemporary Jeremy Lloyd and Keith Michell creations that mix Beatrix Potter and the Bash Street Kids), it has a sound and solemnity quite far removed from our other AAA entries ('Beach Boys Christmas', The Moody Blues' 'December' and various Beatles Christmas fanclub records).

Interestingly the project wasn't written for Arty directly, even though he and Jimmy Webb were and are good friends and Arty is one of the few pop/rock singers disciplined enough to tackle what is in essence a work closer to an oratorio. The early 1980s were a difficult one for Garfunkel, who'd spent far too much time and effort working on a 'new' Simon and Garfunkel album that never came out and a reunion concert in Central Park that was a nice idea that got too huge too quickly for the pair of them (not having a great time himself, Paul decided that the first draft of 'Hearts and Bones' was too personal and thought he'd be better off singing it solo, wiping months of his partner's work without actually telling him). Vowing that he'd never be 'sucked in' by the commercial end of the music business again, Art vowed that from now on he was going to concentrate on music for the sake of it, a vow he kept with his deliberately un-commercial 'Scissors Cut' album, the predecessor to 'Animal's Christmas'. Originally this project was to be performed at the local church once, perhaps the next few Christmases too if it was successful, and Art felt a real 'connection' with Webb who was also turning his back on music for money-making ends. Throwing in his lot, he agreed to perform the main roles (the narrator and 'Angel Gabriel', who more than one fan reckoned Art resembled anyway), turning up as a 'surprise' guest at rehearsals.

The marvellous reaction from everyone present on opening night came as a shock to everyone, as 'Animal's Christmas' isn't that easy a work to understand. There are no real melodies, what 'fun' and less solemn lyrics there are seem often buried behind obscure Biblical-type speak and although the story sticks probably closer to the original Bible source than almost every other re-telling of the story the emphasis is on human ignorance and stupidity rather than sweet talking animals as the name of the album suggests. There are no famous carols, no 'nicked bits' from popular Christmas songs and not one sleigh bell in sight - in fact I'd go so far as to say this is the last real genuinely traditional biblical project of the 20th century (if you can think of any exceptions, by all means send them in to our comments section). Encouraged, Webb decided to make the work bigger and better for 1984, developing much of the middle section of the album and giving Garfunkel a much bigger role than before. Shocked, everyone involved found word of mouth about the year before had made 'The Animal's Christmas' an even bigger hit and suddenly record companies were flocking up to record the project.

Not wanting to make any 'real' money from it, both Webb and Garfunkel were reluctant at first. It speaks volumes that the recording of the album was split in two, with 'sections' taped during December 1983 for a quick release, but only really starting up in earnest in December 1984. The fact that the album missed it's Christmas deadline and actually came out in January also suggests that no one involved was trying that hard to have a festive best-seller, which is a good thing: while not the flop you might be expecting from the description, 'The Animal's Christmas' wasn't a great success either and it's one of those albums whose good points are al the better for being uncovered unexpectedly, from an album you weren't expecting much from. The bad news is that 'Animal's Christmas' is one of those semi pop-classical music hybrids that grows on you with each repeated playing - which isn't something you're likely to do with a Christmas record between February and November every year. 'The Animal's Christmas' gets overlooked very easily, both by accident and design, and lies almost forgotten now in the discographies of both Webb and Garfunkel, despite the fact that the pair arguably spent more hours on this project that any other across the 1980s. Officially there has been a CD release for it, in the late 1990, although I haven't seen it anywhere and - perhaps because of the festive connotations - nothing from it has appeared on any Art Garfunkel compilation yet either. Alan's Album Archives is the home of lost and forgotten music, so it doesn't surprise us that we're reviewing an album hardly anybody bought and even less people played - the question is, do we recommend going out of your way to search for a record that's mighty difficult to track down?

Well, as ever, the answer is yes and no. Taken as a whole this might well be one of the dullest albums of your life on first hearing. There's nothing to break up the monotony of the London Symphony Orchestra rising and falling, seemingly at a whim with nothing to do with what the King's College School Choir are doing. At times Art's voice is strained past the point of recognition and although the 'extended' parts of the album are clearly better built for his soaring soprano, he gets precious little space to show off what he can actually do. The story that the songs tell is at once over-familiar and oblique, mixing the stories about the immaculate conception and no-room-at-the-inn with new cameos for camels and 'incredible phats the cat' that seem almost blasphemous against such holy musical surroundings. sadly none of these characters are given much of a chance to develop themselves, either, and if the ultimate goal of this work is to show that there is a better side to humanity after all then it's a shame that the cantankerous inn keeper and nasty King Herod come across as more interesting characters than any of the 'nice' animals who actually believe that Jesus is the son of God. Jesus himself is barely mentioned - which is a brave thing to do for such a religious work - usually referred to as 'the baby' and only occasionally as 'The Son Of God'. It would be like singing a whole book of Christmas carols without using the words. The children's choir is also a lot closer to 'Grandma We Love You' than, say, the one that appears on 'Another Brick In The Wall' and even though the words the children sing are often quite dark and daring for this sort of thing, it always comes out sounding too sweet. Even at its best this album has bitten off more than it can chew and there's nothing here to approach with the best work of wither Webb or Garfunkel and if Art is struggling with his vocals then that's nothing to the problems promising but less extinguished singer Amy Grant has with the piece.

And yet, you can't dismiss this album too easily either. Taken as a whole, there's a real mood about 'Animal's Christmas' that makes it hard to understand but easier to respect: the whole piece, cameos and all, seem to be leading onto a natural conclusion that's all but inevitable, the will of God. There's a real sense of something 'bigger' at work when powerful rulers like Herod and larger than life characters step aside because they 'know' what Mary and Joseph says to be true. While none of the songs individually are all that memorable, the effect and impact of hearing the full song cycle does stay with you for some time afterwards and certainly has had far more thought and heart put into it than all sorts of grotty Christmas merchandise. Art is not anywhere near his best here, but it's fun to hear him so far outside of his comfort zone and he pulls of an almost operatic part far better than pretty much anyone else in the same position could. Stern as the narrator, sweet as any number of animals, Garfunkel certainly has the range for this demanding role, even if the harshness it often demands from him doesn't come naturally to him. After almost a year of working on 'Hearts and Bones' and having almost no input, you can almost hear the cogs whirring in his head as perfectionist Art tries to work out how to make this challenging part even better and at times he's the most controlled, comfortable person in the room - even if it's a sparkling towering majestic room far bigger than that usually open to him.

At its simplest and humblest, 'The Animal's Christmas' also does a good job at capturing the spirit of Christmas better than even the Beach Boys festive albums do (we're not going to mention the appalling Moody Blues one for now!) 'Just A Simple Little Tune' is just about the best track on the album, perhaps because it's closest to what Art normally sings, and it's clearly about so much more than that: quiet understated moments of affection to kith and kin make more sense than whole verses about Jesus' birth, even if Christmas is all about religion to the listener (Christmas Day was a pagan time of celebration long before Christianity, after all). Also, there's nothing there that would have sounded out of place several hundred years ago. This is traditional, from the very 'heart' of what Christmas means and has always meant, dating back beyond the Christmas tree (a Victorian invention), the Christmas cards (ditto) and Cliff Richard (circa the middle ages). The fact that a forgotten 12th century Spanish Carol can be included at the 'heart' (or at least the middle) of the work with not much work needed to adapt it speaks volumes about 'The Animal's Christmas' and it's quest not to bow down to the gates of commercialism or dumbing down. Whether you like it or not - and for a lot of the time I must confess I didn't, both when I first heard this album and when I dug it out of it's Christmas tinsel for this review - it's hard not to respect something that risks so much to tell a story properly.

The work got and still gets unanimously positive reviews, though, even from pop critics who never usually come across this sort of thing which rather makes me wonder: did aybody really 'get' this work? Is it a case of the Emperor's New Clothes? (gee it's got an orchestra, it must be 'good' for you and all cultural, so we'll give it full marks even though I didn't understand a flipping word!') If so, then that's a shame. 'The Animal's Christmas' tries so hard to do away with all the rubbish that people speak about religion and music, as close to the 'source' as it possibly can. It needs us to say when it falls downhill and where it most falls apart is this: like many things worthy, you feel you ought to be watching and taking in, it also manages to be dull. The Incredible Phat - a cat who 'runs' the stables whatever the innkeeper says and leads Joseph and Mary to their safe place for the night - is a close cousin of The Kinks' 'Phenomenal Cat' and TS Eliot's 'Old Possum's Book Of Cats', an extraordinary creature who sees more than mere mortals and ought to be the most memorable in a sea of fascinating creatures. Instead he passes by in the blink of an eye, having never actually done more than walk to a stable he always knew was there, despite the big build up his part in the story has. He's not actually incredible at all, he's an ordinary being caught up in an extraordinary story and that's what the whole work should have been about. Herod and co miss the real story unfolding before their eyes because they're too 'busy' talking about themselves and bigging up their own importance, leaving it to the humble animals to be more deserving and knowledgeable of what's really going on. Too often, though, each animal is introduced with a 'wow - how do they do that?!' persona they and us don't really deserve - had they been more like the nation's favourite Christmas animal the humble 'little donkey' and less like Mr Mestofeles, the amazing conjuring cat, 'The Animal's Christmas' would have got to the 'heart' of Christmas a little quicker still.

Still, if this album falls well short of the perfection it aims for then that's more because of how far it over-reaches itself. We've often said on this site that a poor album that has a go at trying something new is always preferable to a bland album that offers the same tired old things we've heard lots of time before and so with this album. Art himself called this work 'a gothic Cathedral of an album' and calls it 'the type of work that would have been given a papal commission long ago'. An album well out of time (1986 was perhaps the most commercialised year in the whole of music, what with the de facto tinny synth sound that seemed to be on everything back then and the sheer list of atrocious albums released that year, even by AAA members who should have known better), it's one of the few albums from the 1980s not to sound horribly dated to modern ears. The aim of this record soars way outside any of the musical boxes even the greatest of our AAA albums are naturally contained within and on that score releasing such an uncompromising uncommercial album as this one is one of the greatest achievements on our whole list. It's just a shame that, after such hard work and having been made for so many of the right reasons 'The Animal's Christmas' couldn't be just a teeny tiny touch more musical and a soupcon more joyous, so that even those of us who came to this album for Arty's voice rather than the music could find something deeply enjoyable to take away with us through the new year and beyond.


'The Annunciation' is a rather noisy opening. Art, an angel Gabriel, crashes in noisily on Mart's slumber without a by-your-leave with a rousing cry of 'hail!' Amy Grant makes for a rather sultry version of the Virgin Mary compared to normal, while Art is called on to shriek and shout so much it's a wonder he doesn't lose his voice. The 'twist' in this re-telling of the familiar tale is that Mary isn't just a virgin - she's never even had a boyfriend (Joseph isn't on the scene until later). Musically, this isn't so much a song as a recitative set to music. I seem to be alone amongst music fans here, but I don't feel that these sort of genres work that well in the context of albums. Pete Townshen'd written a few too over the years and to me it just sounds like someone singing a part they should really be speaking. The music is very much an afterthought and is constructed to fit round the words - you can understand why given the importance of the 'plot' to the album, but if you're listening to hear melodies as well then this is a particularly raw deal. There are also no animals in this song - you'd think the Angel Gabriel would be surrounded by a few birds or something wouldn't you? Bah! Humbug!

'The Creatures Of The Field' is closer in style to the rest of the album, telling the story of a concerned owl whose got a soft spot for Mary and wants to know why she's crying (how he slept through the sudden crash of 'Hail!' when the Angel first appeared goodness only knows). Alas the sheep don't know. We leave the song with Mary pacing up and down her room, unable to take the news in - and who can blame her? - and staring up at the stars. The owl's response is to sing her a lullaby to lull her off to sleep (that's ironic - most nights I'm kept awake by a nearby owl hooting with the strength with which Gabriel sings 'Hail!' on this album - perhaps I should lend him a copy of this album?) There is a decent tune here this time, finally giving Art something to get his teeth into and a lovely french horn part that double his lines that adds much texture and 'sorrow' to the scene. The children's choir are a little in the way here, though - clearly meant to be a sort of 'heavenly chorus' who can see things that we mere mortals can't, the way the song is structured means that they keep interrupting Arty whenever he's trying to sing.

'Just A Simple Little Tune' is my favourite moment on the album, the best mixture between the children-friendly animals and the adult-friendly religious fervour of the album. In a pre-cursor of the animals at stable who can offer nothing but their song, this is a cameo by the smallest, humblest creatures around to see events, determined to do their part in helping Mary's pregnancy. A cricket plays his legs, a nightingale sings harmony and 'a flop-eared hare dances a jig with a raccoon' , which isn't a passage I'm quite sure made it into the bible! This song is indeed 'just a simple little tune', but it actually has a tune at least and it's charming detail and quiet humble eloquence make it 'work' in a way that the rest of this occasionally high-brow album doesn't. This song might not be central to the plot as such and you could miss this song out without telling the story, but really it's integral: Nature is celebrating the birth of Christ even while mankind lies ignorant is the theme of this album and nowhere is that better explored than with this song.

'The Decree' is nice and melodic too, closer to the folk-rock of Art's own albums than anything else on this LP. Angel Gabriel seems to have more manners about him this time, entering subtly to view on Mary's progress without any cry of 'hail!' and actually caring for her feelings and how mankind might view her pregnancy out of wedlock, which didn't seem to have occurred to him before. Unfortunately, at the same time, Caesar Augustus is issuing a decree of his own concerning an extra tax and sending Mary and Joseph and others home to pay it (although this song's claims that he 'taxed the world' is a bit overstated: I doubt the American Indians, for instance, ever knew about it). The song tries to get dissonant and scary on the lines 'while she was great with child travelled through a country dark and wild', but at heart this is a happy song with the feeling that God's spiritual light will more than be enough of a match for man-made material darkness. Sadly there isn't an animal in this song, apart from the fact that Mary 'only had a donkey to ride'. Given his importance in the story, you'd think the poor donkey would get a full song of his own to sing?

'Incredible Phat' is a bit of a weird one. Forget what you thought you knew about the inn-keeper: he might think he's in charge but the inn was really run by his cat, the one with the weird name. A close cousin of the Kinks' 'Phenomenal Cat' and Pink Floyd's 'Lucifer Sam', this is a mystical, magical cat who comes alive at night and sees things his poor mortal owners will never see. On paper this cat should be the single most incredible character of the story, sensing who this mysterious stranger is long before anyone else out of earshot (although given Gabriel's booming 'hail!' he probably woke up half the country anyway). Unfortunately he's barely mentioned, except in the last verse when he leads the party to safety and 'the warmest place on the coldest night of the year' - most of the song is taken up with the stupidity of the inn keeper, who cares more for the 'sheikh with three wives and the moneylender' because they have more money to pay. Well, Phat was having a 'saucer of beer' when we meet him - maybe he's a bit intoxicated and can't get his words out!This song's interesting detail not actually in the bible: the inn's name was 'The Elephant's Ear'. Did they have elephants in Bethlehem? I think not! Camels yes, elephants no. Sounding not unlike 'Breakaway', this song adds some nice guitar to the mix and Art sings with himself in harmony. The effect is one of the better sounding songs on the album, even if this sudden lurch from pure Christianity into pure novelty is a bit sudden and unskilfully handled.

'The Friendly Beasts' rounds out the first side with a traditional song that inspired the project, telling the story of the animals in the stable when Jesus was born, the first earthly creatures to greet him. The donkey, sheep, cow and dove all look after him and speak in turn of their vows of dedication to him and what they have to offer. Like many Victorian carols the result is awfully repetitive to modern ears and awfully earnest, but sweet all the same. The song (or maybe carol is a better term?) has easily the best melody on the album, however, soaring and beautiful and tinged with the melancholy of the story yet to come as well as the joy of the moment. Sadly, though, Art doesn't get much to do with this song, which is largely given over to the children's choir which makes the effect a little too cloying for its own good. Again, having done all the work, you'd expect the donkey to have a little bit better send-off from the story (isn't carrying Mary all that way slightly more important to the story than the Doves coo-ing baby Jesus off to sleep?) I'm also puzzled by the title - surely the animals in this song have proved themselves to be more than 'beasts', recognising their new savour long before the humans do (or is that the point, that the humans are really the 'beasts'?) And why has nobody looked up into the sky and gone 'gosh that star's big tonight innit?!'

'The Song Of The Camels, which begins side two, is based on a poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth and yet it fits into the story very well indeed. With the three wise men riding on their back, the camels really are strangers in a strange land for this song, confused by the 'grass and shadowed plain and the splashing of rain'. As written originally, this song should have contained a 'surprise' ending whereby the camels carrying the most important men of their cities on their backs turn up, not at the palace as the camels expect, but at a lowly stable following a 'star'. Sadly the surprise is rather given away here, given the last 20 minutes spelling out the story! 'Camels'; is another of the better songs, however, fully engaging with seeing the world through animals' eyes, away from what the humans think and see, and frankly their story ought to be better known in the context of the nativity, especially the hardships they went through to reach Jesus. The last verse is especially descriptive as the camels drift back out of the story as mysteriously as the way they came: 'Back to the desert we paced our phantom state, and faded again in the sands that are as secret as fate, portents of glory and danger our dark shadows lay, at the feet of the babe in the manger...and then drifted away'. Musically this is another recitative-style piece, although this one is slightly more forgivable given how long the piece existed as words without the music, although it's a shame that Webb has chosen to replace a proper melody with awkward dynamics, that leave half the piece shrieking and the other half too quiet to hear.

'Words From An Old Spanish Carol' is next, the last of the album's songs with a 'traditional' origin. This old carol is about the celebration of the birth of Jesus in the natural kingdom, as one by one the animals go past the stable to salute their new king (including fish, bees, lambs, oxen, bulls, goats and a white bird). The stables must have been in one of the busiest nature sites around, nearby to a river, fields, heather hedgerows and 'far hills'! Only then do the local children, intrigued by the star, come shyly to see Jesus and light a candle for him. Art duets with Amy again on this song, although both are swamped by the full children's choir which recounts the tale over and over until you want to scream - like a Spanish equivalent of the Teletubbies (or a Cliff Richard's Greatest Christmas Hits CD). The weakest of the three 'proper' carols, this song deserved to have been lost, without the charm and wit of the other two and without a memorable melody to go with the song again. At least the words fit, though, with nature again much sharper on the uptake than mankind, who only notice Jesus because of natural phenomena (like the stars and the fact that all the animals have suddenly started acting funnily). Of course, if this was the modern day people would film the scene of all the animals offering their respect by putting it on youtube or making a mint from 'You've Been Framed'.

'Carol Of The Birds' is the turn of the feathered kingdom to pay their respects, disturbed by the giant star in the sky. Bringing their music with them, they cry out their songs across the skies and pass on the news of Jesus' birth ever further. Fittingly, 'Birds' is an upbeat piece, the most celebratory-like on the album and there are some neat touches from the woodwind section who do a god job of mimicking birds in flight. However, there's also a ghastly church organ playing most of the way through that nudges the whole piece uncomfortably down the religious route and a string section that sounds as if it's playing simply to try and drown out everyone else. Again, Arty's missing for much of this song, leaving the children's choir in command and the result is what should have been a light, fluffy song of joy buried underneath far too much weight. Had Art sang this song solo, or with just the woodwind, this might have been delightful: as it is it's a wonder Mary and co can sleep at all with all that racket going on just above their heads!

Do you remember a frog in the bible version of events? Me neither - RE lessons would have been a lot more fun has the 'Animal's Christmas' been a set text I have to say! The longest song on the album, at 5:15, this feels like more than a cameo too, with the plot of this song another of those incidental details that's actually the full story. Surprised by what's going on, and keen for the frog kingdom to play their part too, the frog gets a bit too close to the newborn infant and outrages everyone present. Laughing at him for his ugly features and his un-tuneful croak, the poor frog is made to feel most small and undeserving, but Jesus finds the frog's gifts of laughter and joy greater than any of the prettier songs the birds sing. Light from the Heavens then shines not on the bigger, prettier animals but on the humble frog, who is praised for doing his best and briefly given the gift of song, chosen out of all the animals as the 'voice' of nature to fill in the baby on life on Earth. Another of the album's better songs, 'The Frog' is a better parable than any that are actually in the bible, showing how even the lowly and unappealing of us have a voice that deserves to be heard and a beauty that works to our own ends. Sadly this song is another recitative-type, which means the that melody exists only to further the words and is instantly forgettable if indeed you ever noticed what it was doing in the first place. But here, at least, the use of a recitative is forgivable because the words are so strong and the story so integral to the plot. Interestingly this unknown frog is a lot better drawn as a character than any of the 'named' creatures, even though he doesn't strictly appear in the piece until a fair way through. Art is at his best here, too, clearly 'getting' this piece more than the more operatic and religious songs on the rest of the album. sadly, though, he doesn't get the chance to do his croaking impressions!

'Herod' is back in the story now and, like most of the humans in this nativity, he's so sure of his own importance that the response of all the animals to someone other than himself is confusing to him. The song starts off like a Horrible Histories jig ('Herod the curious was furious!') but ends up as the most Biblical-heavy on the album, quoting from the texts largely verbatim (although only in this version does he have a cackling pet raven, who yet again gets a rum deal from writers despite being quite a sweet little bird - I call that discrimination based on the colour of his feathers). Herod is on their tail but the swift disappearance of the animals means that Mary and Joseph know something is up and they flee to pastures new, Herod on their tale. It's hard to forgive the closing line ('Judas Iscariot, safe from his chariot, casts his eye over the land...') and the rest of the song isn't much better, another of the album's weaker tracks. That said, at least there's a bit of turbulence and tension in this song which, after 35 odd minutes' worth of peace and tranquillity, does at least shake the album a bit.

The album then closes with 'Wild Geese', hardly the animal I expected the album to end with. Pointing their way to freedom and escape, the geese swirl around the frightened travellers and protect them from Herod's soldiers on their path. Circling overhead, they cry 'Amen!' and 'Hallelujah!', celebrating the son of God's triumphant birth and escape. A swirling, dramatic song with church organs a blaring and the choir 'ahhh-ahh'ing like they've been possessed, this finale sadly doesn't feature much Art Garfunkel either, belatedly giving Amy Grant a great deal more to do (she's at her best here on this, the most straightforward part she's been given). Considering the journey we've been on, it's a shame to leave the album a) just as the plot's hotting up and b) on such an empty song, made up of the smallest number of verses and without much real input from the animals as characters. Like the rest of the album 'Wild Geese' is frustrating because while the idea is a good one and a fitting end to the story, it's not all that likeable as a song in its own right, too fussy and unmelodic for most people's tastes.

That said, even at its worst 'The Animal's Christmas' is a festive album with a strong story at the centre of it (the animal kingdom's quick acceptance of their new King and mankind's sheer ignorance) and a number of very good ideas, the most 'animal-like' amongst the songs working by far the best ('Just A Simple Little Tune' and 'The Frog', the two pieces here that really do work at conjuring up an alternate view of the usual nativity story). The few times he's allowed to sing something rather than speak-sing it, Art Garfunkel too is perfect casting, soaring away with the angelic voice of old and only really coming unglued when the story expects him to act harshly or carry too much of the plot. 'The Animal's Christmas' isn't an easy piece to perform (which might be why, despite the generally strong reception, it hasn't been performed outside New York) and is an even harder one of the listener to get a hold of, juggling several ideas and songs that aren't so much a collection of songs as orchestral accompaniment to poetry. This work could and should be even more moving than it is already, forced to decide for good between being an austere re-telling of the nativity with scary shadowy figures or a sweet re-telling of the story via animals and characters. This record tries too hard to have it both ways and ends up pleasing fans of neither side. But that said - at least this album tries to add something to the 'Christmas' listening experience rather than recycling the same old hat and everyone involved is at least trying to make this work. So, as it's Christmas, I'll give this one a cautious thumbs-up to those wanting something rare to put under the Christmas tree for their Art Garfunkel fanatical family member or friend or alternately anyone who likes their Christmas music religious, traditional and with children's choirs attached. 'The Animal's Christmas' is not for everyone - it's very much made for adults despite the cutesy name and the pre-teens who do most of the singing - but approach this piece of music in the right way and it may nicely surprise you all the same. Overall rating - 3/10

AAA 'Christmas Presents' We'd Most Like To See (Top Fifteen, News Views and Music 225)

As 2013 draws to a close (our annual 'best of the year' awards is due in our top ten next week), we reflect on what a comparatively weak year it's been for new music - and yet what a rather great year it's been for AAA-releases-we-never-expected to see. Apple have finally acquiesced to our demands on this very site to release a second volume of the 'Beatles at the BBC' set, complete with chat (obviously they've only done it because we told them to and not because the earlier recordings might be out of copyright next year, oh no, and the five year wait was just them taking their time to get it right). Belle and Sebastian have done likewise with a second compilation of their rare B-sides and EP tracks (sadly it skips a lot of the more interesting stuff for later lesser recordings so isn't quite what we wished for but, hey, having all of these rarities together is still a positive thing; we asked for this four years ago). We also pleaded with another member of CSNY to write a book so that we could a) update Crosby's autobiography (which ended with him out of prison in 1989) and b) work out what the hell Neil Young was talking about in his. Nash has answered our prayers with 'Wild Tales', published in September, although as I write it's still (hopefully) wrapped up and waiting for me so I can't tell you much more about that yet. We also longed for a 10cc box set a few years ago - the prayers for which were answered at the very end of last year but wasn't exactly what I'd call a triumphant success. It's also just been announced that David Crosby is working with Mark Knopfler for the first time - the kind of cross-pollination of AAA stars we've always longer for on this site (it's not too late to form Crosby, Stills, Nash and Knopfler is it?!)

The last 12 months then have seen an impressive run of releases that we wished for on these pages so - with your indulgence - here's a list of other Christmas Presents we'd most like to see next year, just on the of-chance that, thanks to some yuletide magic, our wishes will come true! Well, you have to wish don't you or these things will never become true... No doubt we'll return to this list in a year's time and have a big laugh as none of these releases are likely to happen but stranger things have happened (The Spice Girls for instance...)

1) "Carl Wilson"/"Youngblood" on CD

OK, so the few celebrated fans who have heard the only two solo albums by the youngest Wilson brother admit they're not much cop, don't sound much like The Beach Boys and that Carl saved all of his good stuff for the Beach Boys LPs. But it would be lovely to get the chance to hear some of it, as both albums are ridiculously rare on CD (Many poor-selling AAA albums are around at expensive house-mortgaging prices, but these two I've never even seen). We also know of a whole raft of 'bonus' tracks that could have been released, from the work Brian was doing with his brother (one of which was released on his solo album 'Gettin' Over My Head') and the work he was doing with brother Dennis *(some of which came out on his unfinished solo album 'Bambuu'). Dennis' solo recordings used to be the rarest Beach Boys albums going, but a superlative re-issue in 2007 alongside one excellent and one poor documentary now means that the middle Wilson brother is, rightly, heralded as a genius we should have paid more attention to when he was alive. Carl deserves similar respect and while I don't expect his albums to be as revealing as Dennis' were, I am a big fan of his last batch of Beach Boys recordings (the only things worth buying the 1980s and 90 BB albums for to be honest) and he could sing the telephone directory and still make it beautiful. There are more than enough Beach Boys fans out there to make the project financially viable, so why hasn't it happened yet?!

2) The Beatles "Anthology Four"/ "Let It Be" (Deluxe)/"The Complete Christmas Flexi-disc Fanclub Recordings"

I know, I know, we've been asking for both of these for years now but Apple surprised us all this year by quietly releasing 'At The BBC Volume 2' a mere 20 years after the first. To those of you thinking 'well they stuck absolutely everything they could on Anthology' - well think again. Oodles of stuff has come to light since, including the closely-guarded earliest recorded performance by the Quarrymen the day John met Paul, various Lennon-McCartney demos for outside writers, 'Carnival Of Sound' the avant garde McCartney composition created especially for a London 'happening', alternate takes of several songs that exist in the vaults but were passed over on Anthology and a whole cornucopia of alternates from the 'Let It Be' sessions. Enough, in fact, to release a whole box if Apple chose to - complete with a DVD copy of the hard-to-find import-only film - as the whole lot of sessions were also recorded by the film crew (footage which exists complete on audio and might well exist on video too). Admittedly, a lot of these songs are unrehearsed jams around 1950s songs with lots of talking and a lot of repetitious versions of 'Get Back' and 'Let It Be' in particular, but we Beatles nuts are used to that sort of thing. There's a terrific three CD/DVD package in there somewhere (they could even re-issue the original 'Let It Be' hard-back book that came in a limited edition with the original album and has never been seen again, or even a limited limited edition with 'Let It Be Naked' and the original 'Get Back' compilation engineer Andy Johns compiled for them to use) and if Apple want someone to wade through the tapes for them, they only have to ask... Thirdly, The Beatles have milked everything going in the past twenty years, most of it good, but some of it dreadful (did we really need the 'Love' remix and the ballet to go with it? Or the hard-to-read unrevealing Anthology book?) So why haven't they released their Christmas flexi-discs on a proper album yet, full of their speech recordings made especially for fans every year between 1963 and 1969 (1970 subscribers received a compilation of the full set). We covered the lot in one review (News, Views and Music 84 - see the 'Beatles' list on the site below) and never have the fab four been more intimate, funny, whimsical or creative (except for 1968 and 1969 when they do their recordings separately, the joy gone out of their voices). Yes, there might be a copyright issue with them but, frankly, if Apple can navigate their way to releasing 'Beatles: Rock Band', with separations of all the master-tapes (and if the Beatles Book could find a way to re-release all their early issues despite being with a different publisher) then this is surely possible.

3) A New CSN/Y album/Stephen Stills to write his autobiography

First up, it will be 15 years next year since CSNY last released a studio album in a combination of more than two (20 since they were last a trio), despite touring together more often than in any other decade. As a three-piece they even came close to releasing a 'covers' album with Johnny cash producer Rick Rubin before the record was abandoned (allegedly because of an argument over what the words in the Stones' 'Ruby Tuesday' meant!) CSN are, admittedly, without a record contract at the moment. But Neil Young is still a big cheese in the music industry (despite the fact his decade has been a lot patchier music-wise than any of his former colleagues' has) and the other three are surely free to join him at Reprise at his say so. After the excellent 'Freedom Of Speech' tour in 2006 (when CSN backed Neil's 'Living With War' album which was right down their political street) hopes were high for a new album, but no - not yet. Crosby's just announced his first new album in 20 years, which is great news indeed, but it's a real shame that they can't get together for at least one last great album and remind the world of what heroes they are (a concept album about the horrors of the Coalition Government wouldn't go amiss; re-recordings of 'Cold Rain' and 'They Want It All' could be the cornerstones of it). However Nash at least has had a busy couple of years writing his book 'Wild Tales', which now means that there are books by Crosby, Nash and Young on my shelves (Crosby's written three, in fact). How great would it be to have a Stills book there so that we can learn about the group from all (very different) viewpoints and so that madcap collectors like me can feel that their collection is complete? Stills doesn't even have to remember anything - Neil got away with barely remembering a thing that happened to him during the whole writing process of his book!

4) Grateful Dead archive releases: Demos from 1969/ The Last Concert, July 9th 1995

The surviving members of the Grateful Dead must be thrilled at their decision to 'allow' their fans to tape their music, actively allowing them to plug their microphones into their mixing board, because it's stood them in good stead ever since 1995 when Garcia died and the band stopped touring. With 2,300 shows to choose from there's enough material for the Dead to release a new show or even two or three every month and there are now a whole great slew of names for their releases, chosen by engineers (Dick's Picks), fans (various) and the band themselves ('Fallout From The Phil Zone'). Given how different an audio experience each Dead show is from another, that's wonderful news indeed - especially the collection of late 60s shows full of jams based around half a dozen songs for two or three hours which will change the way you listen to music forever. However, there are still no releases for some of the greatest Dead audio footage out there: intimate Garcia-Hunter writing sessions at the band's house in Haight Ashbury, outtakes from the band's earliest albums and their last truly moving show on July 9th 1995 when the band end with a tearful and possibly career best performances of their final trilogy 'Black Muddy River', 'Sugar Magnolia' and 'Box Of Rain'. Yes, the music is out there many times over on the internet and I still can't get used to the technological quirks of the 21st century that allow me to listen to a song recorded 50 years ago on a mobile phone I can carry around in my pocket. But these are important recordings and deserve a release, perhaps the latter on their 20th anniversary in 2015?

5) "Yet Another Four Hollies Originals"/ "The Clarke-Sylvester-Hicks Years"

I so understand your frustration dear readers - I review an enticing sounding Hollies album from the 1970s, you rush to Ebay or Amazon and the results are either hideously overpriced or there's nothing. The Hollies have always been quite badly served on CD, but a series of box sets containing no-frills releases of eight of their best 1970s albums in the late 1990s was a welcome day indeed (thankfully the band's 1960s recordings - up to 1967 at least - have always been in print). Sadly, though, the third volume of Hollies' ;late 60s/70s recordings never came: 'Hollies Sing Hollies' (1969), 'Confessions Of A Mind' (1970), 'A Distant Light' (1971), 'Out On The Road' (1973, originally released only in Germany) and reunion album 'What Goes Around...' (1983) would make a fine box set one day. Even re-issues of the other two sets would be welcome. Admittedly, many of these albums were available, briefly, on French label 'Magic' about ten years ago - but even these releases are rare now and were expensive to buy on import even then unless you lived in France. Better yet, EMI could follow-up their highly successful 1960s set 'The Clarke-Hicks-Nash Years' (which made #1 on the box sets on Amazon the week it came out) with a 'Clarke-Hicks-Sylvester' set included period rare B-sides and the handful of outtakes that crept out on 'Rarities' and the 'At Abbey Road' sets, not to mention some songs still unreleased (all in all there's 20 great songs out there that anyone who became a Hollies fan post 1990 won't know at all). Yes, the set probably won't do as well as the Nash set did (which clicked with curious American CSN fans, intrigued what Nash was up to a decade before in Manchester), but EMI really need the money still and anything seems to be ripe for re-issuing (including the complete Gerry and the Pacemakers and Swinging Blue Jeans sets). Many of the Hollies' best ever work came after Nash left the band - especially in the 1969-73 period) and deserves to be heard.

6) Grace Slick's albums released on CD

Another surprising absence from our shelves is a complete set of Grace Slick albums. In all, Grace released four solo albums during her time with Jefferson Airplane/Starship and yet to date only the first of these (the patchy 'Manhole') has received a CD release in the past 20 years and then only briefly (it only came out last year and has disappeared everywhere already except second hand stalls). Grace's second album 'Dreams' in particular is a masterpiece - reduced to writing a third or quarter of an album before this, Grace has finally left her old band (briefly as it turns out) and really poured her heart out on a moody orchestral album full of ballads and Grace kicking herself for a series of circumstances that's left her unemployed and alcoholic, distanced from everyone she cares for (AA meetings should hand out copies of the album to every new attendant). Third album 'Welcome To The Wrecking Ball' admittedly isn't much cop but fourth and final album 'Software' is fun and fascinating album that sold so few copies few passionate Jefferson fans even know of it's existence. Remember, Grace Slick was one of the icons of the 1960s and fronted one of the world's biggest bands - she's not a second drummer from a prog rock band that only released one single before disbanding, there's a huge following for her music. So why can't we get hold of it?

7) The Kinks' London albums re-issued on CD

By a quirk of the alphabet, anyone who comes round to visit and sit in our house's comfiest chair finds themselves staring at all the Kinks CD releases from 1964 to 1985 which, me being me, are always kept in chronological order. 'Gosh who'd have thought they'd done that many' people often say, staring at the 22 CD spines before asking which one 'Waterloo Sunset's on (It's on 'Something Else' by the way if you're wondering - and that really is the album title, I'm not asking you to look for 'something else!') But whenever I look at that part of my record collection I'm always said because I know that there are four more albums there that haven't been seen on CD since their all-too brief release when they sold barely a thousand copies across the world (so expecting them to turn up anywhere near me is a bit of a tall order). No Kinks fan whose heard them would ever claim the Kinks' albums for London ('Think Visual' 1986, live album 'The Road' 1987, 'UK Jive' 1988 and 'Phobia' 1993) are among their greatest work, but there are some truly great songs on them: witty soundbites that reveal what a difficult 1980s and 90s the Kinks are having. Indeed, 'UK Jive' has so many great moments (if a dodgy modern production) that it's one of our core 101 reviews and it breaks my heart that any of our 'core' albums everyone should know are currently albums that nobody knows. Album highlights, 'Working At The Factory' 'The Road' 'Loony Balloon' and 'Surviving' respectively, are as great as anything Ray Davies ever wrote. I know that none of the Kinks CDs are the strongest sellers around and none of these albums did that well the first time but please - there is a market for these albums and, released simply and competitively, The Kinks have more than enough of a following to make restoring them worthwhile.

8) Paul McCartney deluxe editions "Red Rose Speedway"/"London Town"

Macca seems to know what he's doing with his pricey but nice deluxe releases, so perhaps I ought to keep quiet. But is it just me or is he releasing some very odd choices first? 'Wings Over America' might be one of my favourite live albums - but it doesn't really 'deserve' a deluxe re-issue when there are only a handful of very very similar performances and a seperately-released DVD concert as the 'bonus' features. Why isn't Macca releasing these sets in order? (So far we've jumped around from 1973, to 1970, to 1980, to 1971, to 1976). It's not as if Macca's selecting the albums with the juiciest outtakes either, because if he did he'd head straight to 'Red Rose Speedway' or 'London Town'. The former was originally a double album commissioned to show off all sides of Wings and while most of it is out on something now, a lot of it isn't (Denny Laine's 'I Would Only Smile', Henry McCullough's 'Henry's Blues', Macca's own punkish 'Night Out' and almost the whole of the planned fourth and final 'live' side including such outtake gems as '1882' and 'Dear Friend' (almost the last songs still unreleased from Macca's famous 'Cold Cuts' rarities set, planned in 1980 and much bootlegged since). What's more there's a whole raft of alternate mixes out there that are better than the over-produced slickness of much of the album, including a spookier 'Loup' and a sweeter 'Single Pigeon' (without the horns). I know what you're thinking: most of these deluxe sets include a DVD - well at the same time Wings were making the LP they were also taping 'James Paul McCartney' a 60 minute TV show for ITV not seen since broadcast in 1973. Even allowing for a bit of money to have to change hands for copyrights, hey, this is a McCartney set - its guaranteed to sell, more than the previous sets with so many juicy 'extras' attached. And if that doesn't work, why not 'London Town'? The album was heavily promoted so there's loads of those interviews that could be used for the DVD and home movies of the band at play on board the houseboat 'Wanderlust' they used for the recording. Music-wise, the whole album was recorded as basic tracks by the English/McCulluch line up of the band before being almost recognisable when Wings turned into a three-piece and overdubbed lots of extra back in London. Luckily copies of all the songs taped on 'holiday' were kept and sound fabulous - very different but equally good (if raw) compared to the album that came out (the basic backing track of 'Morse Moose' in particular is a revelation!) So with all these gems in his back catalogue what does Macca promise us next for 2014? 'Wings at the Speed of Bloody Sound', that's what: one of Wings' more unloved albums, early indications suggest that there' no DVD this time around and almost all the bonus tracks will be previously released 12" mixes and B-sides. Hmmm.

10) The Monkees "Missing Links Four"/Boyce and Hart demos

Anyone who owns the superlative Monkees day-by-day chronicle by Andrew Sandoval will be struck by the same thought: there are way way way more Monkees recordings than we ever thought there were. Even allowing for the fact that the pick of them have already been released on three glorious sets of rarities entitled 'Missing Links' in the 1990s and for the fact that some of what's left are backing tracks, never touched by Monkee hands, there's still at least another three hour-long CD sets that could be released. Even the TV series still features 20 minutes' worth of unreleased-on-album performances in its soundtrack including brilliant alternate versions of 'Goin' Down' 'Riu Chiu' 'Tear The Top Right Off My Head' and many more. The record company that owns the rights to the Monkees - Rhino - is often praised on these pages for understanding what fans want and giving it to them better than probably any other company. However, the last string of releases - huge expensive sets with a handful of alternate mixes and radio spots included rather than anything truly revealing - are a disappointment. All three Missing Links sold well, even if volume two didn't do as well as the first two, and there's certainly a market out there for them (after Davy Jones' death last year reminded people how loved he was I don't think the band have been this popular for years as people remember them fondly rather than making fun of them for the old 'don't play their instruments' routine). Now is the perfect time! Failing that, there's a whole stack of demos for recordings the band used doing the rounds on Youtube. Some of them, by Neil Diamond and Carole King, clearly deserve to be released by their authors in their own right. But what about songwriters Boyce and Hart, whose music more than anybody shaped the band? Even taking just the released stuff - put out under Boyce and Hart's name before being recorded later by the band - would make a fine set; almost everything by the duo is impossible to find on CD. Let's hope in 2014 Rhino aren't too busy squeezing us with a Handmade release of 'Changes' (the only original Monkees album left to be given the treatment now) and putting every Monkees fan down.

11) Oasis "The Masterplan Volume Two"

Even after all this time my favourite Oasis moments are often tucked away on B-sides, the band showing their true skill and creative capabilities whilst 'freed' from having to stick to their recognisable 'wall of sound'. 'The Masterplan', a time-filling collection of these in between the band splitting in 1997 and bouncing back in 2000, is still my single favourite Oasis album, featuring the best of their flip-sides from their first single to 'All Around The World' in 1997. However even in 1998 there were complaints that the compilation wasn't thorough enough - Noel Gallagher was so prolific during this period that he had material to burn and in order to reward fans for buying singles often stuck two or three on the back of every A side. Add in the single-only 'Whatever' and the classiest songs from later in Oasis' career (2002's run of B-sides 'Heart Of A Star' 'Just Getting Older' 'Idler's Dream' and 'As Long As They've Got In Cigarettes in Hell' is particularly strong, better than anything released on that year's 'Heathen Chemistry' album and I say that as a fan who loved that record). Now that Oasis are no more and both sides of the band (Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds and Beady Eye) see record sales droop, surely there's only one sensible thing to do: released as 'volume two' best-of or even a 'complete' box set of four CDs containing everything non-LP (and a re-issue of the original compilation) and remind the world just how great, how inventive and how groundbreaking Oasis could be.

12) Pink Floyd "Immersion" box set of 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn'

The big expensive box sets of 'Dark Side' 'Wish You Were Here' and 'The Wall' were hideously pricey but actually quite generous with their volumes of recordings we fans had heard about for years but not actually seen. Frankly, despite being a connoisseur of Pink Floyd bootlegs, I can't think of much from the 1970s that's worth hearing that isn't out now (a few more songs from the 'Zabriskie Point' soundtrack sessions maybe?) However come the 1960s it's a different story: the band plugged their debut album with Syd Barrett a great deal and there are dozens of BBC sessions and TV appearances out there that deserve compiling (there's even an unreleased track, 'Embryo', as good as anything the band did in 1969). When 'Piper' was re-issued a few years back there was a 'bonus' disc containing a handful of period singles, but there are still a good half dozen more still unavailable from 1967 and 1968 ('Julia Dream' 'Point Me At The Sky' Paintbox' 'Wouldn't It Be So Nice?' After telling us for years there was nothing interesting from the first album sessions in the vaults, a great and very different alternate version of 'Matilda Mother' 'escaped' on a Syd Barrett best-of, which clearly deserves a proper home. Add in 'Two Of A Kind' (a Rick Wright song sung by Syd that is out on a BBC set) and the semi-rare soundtrack performances for 'Tonight Let's Make Love In London' and you have the beginnings for a nice little set.

13) CD re-issues of 'Brian Jones Presents The Pipes Of Pan At Joujouka' and 'Jamming With Edward'

The Rolling Stones are so powerful, surely everything they've released has a home on CD? Well, no. Not now, anyway, although both of these curious did get shortlived CD issues at times in the past. Brian Jones doesn't actually appear on is album, but it's a very important document many fans would love to own - almost the last thing Brian did before he died in 1969 was to travel to Morocco to record a genuine local tribe before their music was lost forever. The record was eventually released on the Stones' own label in 1971, as a sweet gesture to his memory, although this and a first CD issue in 1995 passed most collectors by. It might not sound much like the Stones, but this music was important to Brian and it deserves a place in our collections, as integral to 'his' vision of music as sitar music was to George Harrison's. Weirder still is the series of jamming sessions 'Jamming With Edward', which was actually the 'nickname' for the hardest-working AAA session musician Nicky Hopkins, backed by Mick Jagger, potential new guitarist before Mick Taylor joined Ry Cooder (who comes out of the album best), Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts while waiting for Keef to turn up to a Stones session in 1969 (in between second-guitarists), released in 1972. Like many a jam session, it's loose and funky and not built for repeated listenings (Mick was quite fond of it apparently and pushed for it's one brief CD re-issue in the 1990s when Nicky died, although Keith still considers its release a 'joke', which is probably why it's not been heard of again). Neither are completely essential, but considering how big the Stones are and were even their extra-curricular activities are always of interest. The same goes for Bill Wyman's eccentric series of solo albums that are currently very hard to track down on CD.

14) The Who "By Numbers"/"Who Are You?" (Deluxe Edition)

The Who like their expensive re-issues. So far there's been 'deluxe' versions of MY generation, Sell Out, Tommy and Live at Leeds, plus box sets dedicated to 'Tommy' 'Live at Leeds' 'The Lifehouse Chronicles' (technically a Pete Townshend set), 'Quadrophenia' and now - just to rub it in - a new box set dedicated to Tommy, re-released with a handful of Townshend demos. In my eyes the sensible thing to do would be to continue the series on to the next two albums, which so often get overlooked compared to their predecessors but were still top three albums with many followers. 'The Who By Numbers' is one of my all-time favourite albums anyway and deserves a bit more critical respect, but what would make this set even more viable is the fact that Pete actually recorded more demos in this period than he did during the 1960s and early 70s. The few that have surfaced on Pete's 'Scoop' demo series - a terrific alternate of 'However Much I Booze' in particular - suggest that there's a treasure trove sitting in his vaults somewhere and, even though this is all speculation, the sheer amount of songs discussed down the years as 'potential' tracks for that album (many of them released later by Pete on his solo LPs) suggests there must be some juicy demos of these songs somewhere, maybe even early take with Roger Daltrey's voice. Failing that, 'Who Are You?' was a troubled album that took aeons to painstakingly make, things not helped by Keith Moon's failing condition. On the plus side for us, so many songs had to be re-arranged to suit Keith's failing abilities (slower tempos, easier parts, less rock) that there's a whole plethora of abandoned arrangements presumably still sitting in the vaults. The 'Kids Are Alright' documentary, 'apparently' showing the band recording a stunning alternate version of the title track, suggests how great some of this music could be. Even if its not as good as that sounds (and even if the band have to release a two-CD set rather than another pricey box), surely fans are going to snap that up more than the sixth CD re-issue of Tommy in 20 years? (hopefully?!)

15) Neil Young "Archives" Volume Two

Well, it took us over 20 years for Neil to finally finish the first box set after promising it was nearly ready back in the 1980s, so don't get your hopes up for a second volume too soon. Surely, though, out of all of Neil's mammoth unreleased back catalogue, it's this period - so far untouched by his re-issue series - that would contain the gems? The first set went from 1962-72, so presumably a second set would go from 1973-83 or thereabouts, covering the original unreleased version of 'Tonight's The Night', the complete unreleased 1977 reject 'Chrome Dreams' (which provided the best songs for Neil's next three albums), out-takes from the Stills-Young Band sessions (which were a surprise find for Stills' box set earlier this year), some terrific outtakes from fan favourite 'Rust Never Sleeps' that are better than the album takes in my opinion, unreleased unfinished album 'Island In The Sun' and the 'normal' takes of the vocoder-based songs from 'Trans' (never intended to sound 'normal', but Neil must surely have done some guide vocals for this painstaking work, let's just hope they've been kept). Admittedly getting the rights from Geffen (who Neil joined in 1982) might be difficult but even without the last two items this sounds like a scrumptious box set to me. Add in the songs we don't even know about yet (there were a handful in the first archives set collectors didn't know) and it's no wonder this set has made my Christmas list for the past ten years now. let's just hope Neil doesn't take another ten to get round to completing it like he did with volume one!

Right, that's it for another issue. It only reminds for us to wish all our readers a very merry Mary Berry Non-Mariah Carey or Spice Girls' Scary Quite Contrary Christmas and a happy goo year! May all of you have a great yuletide, with all of your AAA-endorsed presents under the tree. Once the festivities are over, join us next week when we'll be adding one more album review to our yearly pile and counting down the best AAA releases of the past twelve months. Join us then!...